Saturday, July 27, 2013


I have a confession to make. I am furtively and when no one is looking, a Byzantinophile to such an extent, that I await with immeasurable longing, the unmarbling of the last Emperor Constantine Palaeologus. His return will be heralded by the half-cooked fish that escaped the monkish frying pan during the Fall of the City, faithfully submitting himself to the completion of the process. At that time, all the stern, uncompromisingly monolithic looking queens immortalised in gilded mosaic upon the hallowed walls of Saint Sophia will emerge from their millennium of immurement, and will join a solemn procession through the city of Constantinople, faithfully following the strictures pertaining to protocol as set out in their infinite minuteness by Emperor Constantine Porfyrogenitos, in his handbook of court ritual: The Book of Ceremonies. Reaching the ruins of the royal palace of Bucoleon, they will ensconce themselves therein, there to be worshipped by the adoring populace.
            Ever wondered why Byzantine princesses are invariably depicted with a halo? Granted they are not saints and indeed, some of their lives are decidedly unsaintly but that seems not to be the point. Rather, one would be forgiven for thinking that they bear the nimbus because they are supposed to be worshipped. Take for instance the famous mosaic depiction of Byzantine Empress Theodora, upon the walls of the basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. There she stands, resplendent in her jewelled tiara, from which long strings of pearls cascade, holding a chalice which she hands to one of her attendants. She is impassive, imposing, immovably serene, the epitome of power, haughty and ineffably beautiful. Instead of staring at her, you feel as if she is staring at you with her inexpressive, omniscient, never faltering eyes, boring deep into your soul and compelling you to divulge your deepest, darkest secrets, exposing them to the scrutiny of her unrelenting gaze. In short she is awesome.

            This is not so bad, for a girl who, if the muckraking historian Procopius’ “Secret History” is to be believed, started off life as a prostitute, where she achieved success by finding ingenious uses for various orifices. It is this girl then, who ended up not only ruling an empire, her steely resolve causing her husband Justinian to stand his ground during the Nika riots that saw the old St Sophia burn to the ground, but also determining the religious development of Byzantium. An avid promoter of Monophysitism, her secret patronage along with the activism of Jacob Baradeus, are considered the only reason why this heresy survived Orthodox opposition. This is ironic, considering that Theodora, has been made a saint of the Orthodox church. Perhaps this is because during her reign the increase of the rights of women in the Empire was so substantial. This ice queen had laws passed that prohibited forced prostitution and closed brothels. She created a convent on the Asian side of the Dardanelles called the Metanoia or Repentance, where ex-prostitutes could support themselves. She also expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership, instituted the death penalty for rape, forbade exposure of unwanted infants, gave mothers some guardianship rights over their children, and forbade the killing of a wife who committed adultery. I refer to and repeat the last sentence of the previous paragraph: She was awesome.
            Another Byzantine Empress who became a saint is portrayed on the walls of the upper gallery of Saint Sophia. Empress Irene, who was Hungarian, is portrayed in all of her regalia but uniquely, with thick plaited blonde tresses and rouged cheeks. Of all the depictions of Byzantine women, hers is perhaps the most human. Her downcast gaze and sad demeanour, a far cry from the power of Theodora still commands the respect commensurate of one who built hospitals as well as homes for the aged and the mentally ill. She also oversaw the construction of the Pantocrator Monastery in Constantinople, which stands, as well as commissioning the much venerated Vladimir icon of the Panayia. After the death of her husband, this sad and saintly Empress entered a convent.  On her deathbed, she took the name “Xene” meaning foreigner and would seem she never felt at home in the strange Greek environment, and perhaps was even homesick for her native Hungary. Hers is a kindly visage, which still strangely compels adoration.

In close proximity to Empress Irene’s mosaic, one can find that of the lovesick Empress Zoe, who exhausted various husbands and lovers in her quest for affection and to perpetuate her dynasty. The mosaic of her husband next to her is not original. When one looks carefully, one can see that his face has been superimposed upon the mosaic face of her previous husband. Zoe’s face too, luminous and downcast, is also superimposed upon that of her hated sister. It has the airbrushed quality of an ageing beauty who cannot come to terms with her perceived diminution in looks, which is understandable considering that she was a renowned beauty in her time, Michael Psellos in his Chronographia commenting that "every part of her was firm and in good condition." Aware of her charms, she meant to keep and use them for as long as possible. With typical Byzantine ingenuity, she had many rooms in her chambers converted into laboratories for the preparation of secret ointments, and she was able to keep her face free of wrinkles until she was sixty – a secret that L’Oreal would kill for today. Fifty when she first married, despite her age, she married twice more but seemed to be unable to find true love, hence the rather forlorn expression on her face. Nonetheless, her mosaic depiction, which sees her dressed in stunningly adorned fabrics inspires breathtaking reverence.
            It is this reverence, awe and adoration inspired by our Byzantine goddesses that seems to have influenced Dolce and Gabbana’s autumnal Byzantine collection. Here insipid expressionless and decidedly thinner goddesses than those of times Byzantine strut their stuff on the catwalk, adorned with beautiful regal tiaras, part saint, part principessa, huge cross earrings, and “delightfully playful” shoes, that variously incorporate rich byzantine purple or  red velvet, baroque carved platforms, and golden cage heels entwined with little floral buds. Drawing on the workmanship and allure of the painstakingly produced Byzantine mosaics, the aforementioned designers have used them for their vision of elaborately gilded and embroidered glamour. Our modern day goddesses however, can be distinguished from their Byzantine counterparts in that they seem to bear likenesses of Byzantine Empresses and saints upon their personages and fashion accessories, something that would have been unthinkable to the original protectresses of power. On the other hand, each of our modern Byzantine queens does have the blank, awesome gaze of a Theodora, and one wonders what would transpire if these mosaic-clad, tiara wearing beauties were set loose among the scholars, theologians and rulers of the world.
A parody of the conflict between iconodules, iconophiles and iconoclasts, icon-worshipers, icon-lovers and icon-destroyers seems apt in this regard and it is quite possible that Dolce and Gabbana is making a feminist point by translating the female form into that of a living icon, to be both worshipped and objectified. Are we, in keeping with iconophilic theology, supposed to worship the icon itself, or the form that the icon represents? Or are we in fact, supposed to worship the exquisite handbag that bears the image of the empress and thus becomes the icon. It is all rather confusing and not a little seductively blasphemous.
There is a story behind those female forms that adorn the garments of their models, one of passion, power, pain and the progression of a one thousand year old civilization whose effects and undertones are still with us today. Dolce Gabbana’s new creations evoke a lost world that still fills many with interminable longing. Yet if they think that they are being original, let them think again. The Byzantines invented the fashion show back in the 830’s by Emperor Theophilos, who held a fashion show of beauties in his palace, in order to choose a wife. One of the main contestants, Kassiani, was turned down for being too witty. Denied the title of Empress, she became, what else? A Saint. Theophilos’ final choice, as Empress, Theodora, ended up defeating those who fought against icons, and also became a Saint. No doubt Dolce and Gabbana’s inspired collection is a commentary on this, fashion shows, and much, much more.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 27 July 2013

Thursday, July 18, 2013


“And now, what shall become of us without the barbarians? These people were a sort of solution.” Cavafy.

 I have loved C.P Cavafy from the first of his poems I ever read, one about the hanging of an Egyptian boy by the British, which was simultaneously sensuous and sensitive. My enamorment deepened during my university years when I enquired of a NUGAS delegate as to the identity of the personages that addressed them at their annual convention. The reply was: “Um…Some dude called Cavafy, I think.” Now any organisation that can, whether via séance or other dark and arcane means, raise great poets from their eternal slumber in order to have a chat with a gathering of post-hungover university students is worthy of my admiration and this is the sole reason why I joined NUGAS so many years ago.

Cavafy followed me into my first job. Seated in a claustrophobically small, Dickensian office, surrounded by a mass of unintelligible papers upon which I was supposed to perform incomprehensible procedures, I found myself visualising a cynical Cavafy, seated at his desk at the Alexandrian Sewerage Department, nonchalantly writing the following poem on his back of his timesheet:

With no pity, with no decency, with no consideration
they’ve built around me enormous, towering walls.
 And I sit here now in growing desperation.
While I managed to retain the integrity of my own timesheets, to the point where I contrived never to complete one, I soon found that the rear of all of my client’s various Statements of Claim, Requests for Further and Better Particulars, Affidavits of Service, Disclosure Statements and Costs letters had become filled with my angular scrawl. In time, these poems would comprise my first poetry collection, Kipos Esokleistos. At the launch of the collection, I remembered to thank my further employer profusely, for being for me, what the Alexandrian Sewerage Department was to Cavafy, a place of such utter intellectual desolation, that it enabled me to write in an inspirational vacuum. This is also why I sought the help of the great poet himself to end the first draft of my resignation letter as follows:

"If you’re an Alexandrian you won’t judge me. You know the yearnings
of our life; what heat they hold; what pleasures most high."


As it transpired, I deemed an excision necessary, for my employer was not an Alexandrian and save for the hot air emanating from his mandibles, was decidedly chilly in demeanour when I handed the letter that severed our relationship to him.

Cavafy of course, living on the fringes of the Hellenic world and drawing his inspiration from the ersatz Hellenism of the Graecified Middle East, is an unsettling prophet of diasporan fate. In ‘Poseidonians,’ a poem I never grow tired of quoting, he describes how the Latinised colonists of Southern Italy go through the motions of performing the same festivals and customs over and over again, long after they have ceased to have any relevance to their daily lives, or their significance is understood. It is a poem I immediately thought of when considering the latest controversy to hit sections of our community, a dispute so unique to us, that it bears close examination.

For this reason, it was with much anguish that I missed the weekend Cavafy conference recently held in Melbourne, to celebrate the 150 years since his birth, which showcased a gamut of internationally renowned academic experts. The conference was by all admissions, brilliant but poorly attended. However, instead of a shrugging of one’s shoulders and grudgingly accepting the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, certain members of the community have sought to publicly question why other members of the community, especially those with literary pretensions and in particular published authors and poets, or members of the Greek Writers and Cultural Associations in Melbourne, who supposedly are ‘into culture,’ were notably absent from the weekend proceedings.

In particular it has been pointed out that there were more people in attendance at a launch of a book about fishing than at the Cavafy conference, the inference being that the literary aspirations of some members of our community harbour other motivations that have to do more with their own self-perception than their ability to appreciate culture, and that in our community it is personal ties of loyalty, and not the quality of an event, that ensures its success. This in turn has predictably provoked a defensive reaction from our beleaguered community ‘literati,’ who are parrying the lexical thrusts of their accusers and making a few word slashes of their own in the Greek language pages of this publication.

One wonders what Cavafy would have made of this war of words. After all, if we were to transpose the current controversy into Australian terms, it is tantamount to castigating Melburnians for attending the launch of a fashion or fishing magazine, rather than a seminar on Banjo Patterson. In this context, such a flagellation appears ludicrous. After all ‘high culture’ is invariably not always the hoi polloi’s first preference within any nation and even where it is, one cannot suppress the doubt that many attendees would rather be somewhere else. Poor attendance of literary events is thus an ecumenical phenomenon, so why does it bother us so much here and why do our literati, who enjoy perfect freedom of choice and do not have to justify their absence to anyone, feel moved to defend themselves?

As always, Cavafy has predicted both this event and our motivation:

"Our efforts are like those of the Trojans./ We believe that with resolution and daring/ we will alter the blows of destiny,/ and we stand outside to do battle./ Nevertheless, our fall is certain. Above,/ on the walls, the mourning has already begun./The memories and the sentiments of our days weep./ Bitterly Priam and Hecuba weep for us."

Put simply, the first generation is horrified to discover that we are living in a post-Poseidonian world. Whereas the said Poseidonians faithfully adhered to their incomprehensible rituals, though their festivals “always had a melancholy ending because they remembered that they too were Greeks… and how low they’d fallen now, what they’d become, living and speaking like barbarians, cut off so disastrously from the Greek way of life,” the perceived ‘failure’ of the Cavafy festival suggests to them that our apathy is so great that we do no longer even feel guilty enough to go through the motions in order to maintain the façade that our community is both vibrant and resisting assimilation. As such, our non-attendance is seen by accusers and defendants alike, as a betrayal of the ethnos, in mitigation of which, adequate defences must be offered.

This ‘posteriors on seats’ conception of the success of our community events would have amused Cavafy, who during his lifetime, shunned the limelight and preferred to remain an ambiguous figure on the margins of society and the Greek literary world. One would guess that he would have been more than satisfied if was able to coax the preconceptions of those few attending into subversion, rather than massage the consciousness of the masses.

Keki Daruwalla, a Pakistani poet, nimbly exposes our restrained hysteria, in his response to Cavafy’s Poseidonians, thus:

"What does one do with a thought/ that embarks on one script and lands on another? … they discover there is more to language/ than merely words, that every act/ from making wine to making love/ filters through a different prism of sound, /and they have forgotten the land they set sail from/ and the syllables that seeded that land. /What do they do, except once a year/ At a lyre-and-lute festival, /Greek to the core, with dance and contests, / grope for memories in the blood, /like Demeter, torch in hand, /looking for her netherworld daughter? /And weep a little for the Greece they have lost/and reflect on the gulf of years which has proved/ wider than the Tyrrhenian gulf, /and the hiatus between languages, /wider than the Aegean ?"

Imagine how much more enjoyable our community events would be, if we went to them not out of a sense of obligation, or a fear of recrimination,  or the belief that if we do not attend our nation will assimilate, but rather, because we genuinely looked forward to being there. This, and not mass attendance is the measure of success and as long as there are devotees of Cavafy in existence, there will always be scope for worshiping at his, or anyone else’s altar. To those who would gainsay, citing a sense of duty, the poet himself offers the final riposte: “Speak not of guilt, speak not of responsibility. When the Regiment of the Senses parades by, with music, and with banners; when the senses shiver and shudder, it is only a fool and and an irreverent person that will keep his distance, who will not embrace the good cause, marching towards the conquest of pleasures and passions.”

First published in NKEE on Saturday 13 July 2013

Saturday, July 06, 2013


"Time has been transformed and we have changed; it has advanced and set us in motion; it has unveiled its face, inspiring us with bewilderment and exhilaration" Khalil Gibran

I first realised that our traditional way of looking at time was different to that of the West when I viewed an Orthodox icon of the Birth of the Panagia. In that icon, Panagia is depicted in two places at the one time: in the midwife's arms, sitting on the floor by the bed and also, in her mother. Whereas time in the West is linear, and infinite, in the East, time is temporal, transient, limited and defined by He who set it in motion and who will, at the Second Coming, bring it to an end. As such, eternity is not a concept defined by time but rather, a state that exists without it and thus, is rendered incomprehensible to all theories of chronology.
The above notwithstanding, the earthly interval between the incarnation of God's design and the Second Coming had to be measured somehow and I came to the realisation that the way in which we did measure the ebb and flow of the years had somehow gone awry when I pondered the following line from the traditional Greek Christmas Carol lyrics: «Αρχιμηνιά κι αρχιχρονιά, πρώτη Ιανουαρίου, που μπαίνει ο μήνας του Χριστού, τ' Αγίου Βασιλείου» and «Αρχή που βγήκε ο Χριστός,» How could it be claimed the January was the month of Christmas, when said festival was celebrated on 25 December?
These Carols are in fact, lasting evidence of a shift in the calendar that took place in the Greek world in 1923. Until that date, the Greek state followed the Julian calendar, which was 13 days behind the western or Gregorian calendar. In an attempt to conform to this reform, in 1924, the Synod of the Church of Greece voted to accept an altered form of the Gregorian calendar that both maintained the traditional Julian calendar for the purposes of calculating the date of Easter and all of the moveable feasts dependent on it, but adopted a system of dates which will agree with the Gregorian Calendar dates until 2800, when the two will start very slowly to diverge, due to slightly different methods of calculating leap years.
The fallout from the institution of the revised Julian calendar was extreme. The patriarch of Jerusalem and all of the Slavonic Churches except for Bulgaria remained steadfast adherents of the "Old Calendar," celebrating Christmas on 7 January and in Greece, a schism was created by the unwillingness of the more conservative elements of the Church to follow the revised calendar. After years of bitterness, recrimination and ultimately, the marginalisation of the Old Calendarists from the mainstream, as well as the paradoxical situation where the adherents of the same religions celebrate festivals on different dates, the best one could say about the calendar reform is that if one enjoys a particular feast, such as the Annunciation, one can enjoy this in the Greek church on 25 March and then, replay the experience in a Russian or Serbian church thirteen days later. As for namedays, the probability of abuse may just be one of the reasons why such days are not customary in the Slavonic tradition.  Viewed in this light, all these manipulations of time seems rather complicated and trivial.
Critics of the Orthodox Church's adherence to the Julian calendar, which presents various errors, use it as an example of that Church's reactionary conservatism and antiquated perspective. They point to the fact the necessary calendar reform was instituted by Pope Gregory XIII as far back as 1582. They also point out that Greece was the last European country to adopt the Gregorian calendar, a staggering three hundred and forty one years later.
It would surprise proponents and detractors of the Gregorian calendar alike to learn that some two hundred and fifty years prior to the institution of Pope Gregory's calendar reform, a Byzantine astronomer, Nikephoros Gregoras,  in a treatise that still remains in existence, proposed to the emperor Andronikus II Palaeologos that exactly the same reforms be made to the calendar. At that time, the Emperor refused to make those reforms, owing to the fear that these would incite civil disturbances and throw an already beleaguered Empire into turmoil.
Gregoras, born in Heracleia of Pontus in 1295, is perhaps of one of the more fascinating figures in Byzantine history, in that he is a rare example of a scientist assuming a large amount of influence in the running of public affairs. A student of the eminent Grand Logothetes of the Empire and Platonic philosopher, Theodoros Metochites, who is considered as one of the forerunners of the Renaissance, he was taught philosophy, astronomy and mathematics. Through Metochites' patronage, he was presented to the Emperor  as an adviser and 'Grand Teacher'.
It was Gregoras who founded the "Moni tis Choras" ("Monastery of the Country"), a distinguished school where he started to teach philosophy, mathematics and astronomy to
a large number of Byzantine and European students. The church attached to that school survives o this day.  In that capacity he was able to publish his "Roman History" dealing with the Byzantine Empire between 1204 to 1320, in 37 books, an invaluable historical resource.
It was however as an astronomer that he achieved greatest renown, publishing such works as:
"About the Revilers of Astronomy", "Entreaties For Astronomy","How Should an Astrolabe Be Constructed" and various others. It was in this context that he realised that the current calendar in use was incorrect and desperately needed reform.
While engaged on such pursuits, he also was sent on various diplomatic missions on behalf of the Empire. His writings and observations on medieval Serbia, during his mission to the court of King Stefan Uros, are of immense historical importance.
Any hope Gregoras had of gradually wearing down the Emperor's resistance came to nought when his patron was dethroned by his grandson. Forced into retirement, he emerged briefly in order to engage in philosophical disputations with the Aristotelian monk Barlaam of Calabria.
It was his besting of Barlaam that convinced the Empror to restore him to his position of "Grand Teacher." Soon after, he was appointed to conduct the unsuccessful negotiations for a union of the Greek and Latin churches with the ambassadors of Pope John XXII on 1333. He subsequently played an important role in the Hesychast controversy, strangely on the side of his erstwhile opponent Barlaam, against St Gregory Palamas who believed in the possibility of seeing the uncreated energies of God.   After the doctrines of Palamas were recognized at the Council of 1351, Gregoras, who refused to acquiece, was practically imprisoned in a monastery for two years. While in prison, he worked on commentaries on the wanderings of Odysseus and on Synesius' treatise on dreams; tracts 'on orthography and on words of doubtful meaning; a philosophical dialogue called Phlorentius or Concerning Wisdom, astronomical treatises on the predictive calculation of solar eclipses and on the calculation of Easter.
It is said that when this universal man died in 1360, a fanaticised crowd of Hesychasts desecrated his body, though the sources that claim this are considered unreliable. He died unmourned, misunderstood and his greatest work, the reform of the calendar, totally ignored. In the centuries that would follow, the tottering Byzantine Empire would fall, ushering in a dark age that would prove inimical at least at the outset, to scholarship and science in Greece. Yet if anything, Gregoras' work serves to prove to conservative elements that calendar reform is not a product of western imperialism, but rather a native, homegrown development arising from the culture they are so passionate about preserving. The west on the other hand would do well to acknowledge the forerunners of the renaissance and give them their due, for it is undoubted that Gregoras was a man before his time. The Gregorian calendar should in actual fact, be named after him. Who knows, in time, the wounds of the past will heal, permitting conservatives and progressives alike to seize the future, for after all, in the words of Heraclitus: "Time is a game played beautifully by children."
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 6 July 2013